Mikkey Halsted: Street Signs
As a senior in college I was able to attend a lecture by Cornel West. West spoke about many things, but what stuck out to me most was something that West imparted in relation to reflection, experience, and pain. To paraphrase, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living, and the examined life is pain.’ I was reminded of West’s visit to Indiana University while working on my interview with Chicago based emcee, Mikkey Halsted.
Mikkey’s long awaited LP, Chicago: The Photo Album, exists as a verbal collection of images and events that shape the city of Chicago, and have thus shaped Mikkey himself. The Photo Album, and Mikkey’s life, is filled with examined experiences that serve greatly to prove West’s point. Beyond the much talked about early deal with another West’s Kon Man Productions, and the failed deal with Cash Money Records, Mikkey Halsted has dealt with starvation, poverty, and the death of his father and uncle due to drug use. Such experiences and an incredible talent make Mikkey a unique emcee both in style and skill.
I met up with Mikkey at The PHLI store in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood on a sunny Thursday in June. In the interview, Mikkey speaks in-depthly about the Chicago communities that shaped him, his experiences in the classroom, and why he hates drug dealers more than police. Halsted, the street from which Mikkey takes his name, is known throughout the Windy City. If he does as his former labelmates Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne, Mikkey will take the name global…
RubyHornet: So we’re talking right now in Hyde Park, and I know that your album is a collection of snapshots of Chicago. You also have the song “Liquor Store” which talks about the prominence of liquor stores when there’s a lack of other more important resources.
Mikkey Halsted: Exactly.
RubyHornet: But we’re in Hyde Park, which is an interesting area on the Southside, where there is not a liquor store on every corner, even a presidential candidate lives here. On your album, are we going to get more of the gritty side, or also snapshots of something like this area?
Mikkey Halsted: Man, Hyde Park is the epitome of Chicago to me. This is my second home. I’m from 116th and Morgan, which is a totally different kind of feel than Hyde Park. It’s more of the liquor store feel. My family stayed right there on Lake Park, so 53rd street is part of me too. That’s where you get the Hip Hop, the consciousness. That’s where I first started listening to stuff like X-Clan and Tribe when my friends on 116th were listening to NWA and Geto Boys. I think that contrast really made me who I am and it really epitomizes Mikkey. When a lot of people hear me, they’ll say, ‘you’re a real Chicago dude,’ because I’m everything. You’re going to get the Hyde Park, the Hip Hop, the backpack feel on the album. I’m working with No ID, so it’s hard not to have that. This is like the Hip Hop purist land right here, and you definitely get that when you get Mikkey Halsted and the Photo Album.
RubyHornet: I think in order for the larger nation to get “Chicago Hip Hop” as well, we need to have this side in there. As you said, Hyde Park gets people from all the different areas. I think Hyde Park also answers questions about, ‘why are Chicago cats so quiet when you first meet them?’ To me, Hyde Park and the South side promote a demeanor of quietly going about your business and talking about it later.
Mikkey Halsted: Exactly, and this is where I want to raise my family. This is where I do my everyday things at. This is where you can escape the nonsense and just come amongst a whole bunch of different cultures and expand your mind. I play chess with the old-timers out there, go to the health food store. Chicago is more than just the block, the block, the block everyday. We’re more than that. We’re more well-rounded than that. I think to be one of those classic artists you have to have depth to you. I think that’s what lends to that depth, having a broad scope of experience, meeting and talking with different people. Hyde Park is what opened my mind up to that. Where I was from 116th, I didn’t know a white person or Asian person, so it’s a whole different mentality there. When my family moved to Hyde Park, it opened my mind up like, ‘man, this is what it’s supposed to be. This is the utopia that I feel represents America. That’s why Obama could come out of here and do what he’s doing, because that’s what Hyde Park represents. I’m proud. That’s why I came. Even though Hyde Park has its gang culture too, it’s just everything together co-existing. It’s special and this is where I’m eventually going to rest my head at the end of the day.
RubyHornet: I’ve read other interviews with you, and you seem very conscious about the timing when everything comes out. In the current climate, you’ll see artists are release two major albums in the same year. They release an album, and during an interview three weeks later are already working on their next project. But you are sitting on material, where did you get that approach?
Mikkey Halsted: I really got that approach from watching what I call that Golden Era of Hip Hop. I was looking at how they did it, and how albums were created. We’re in the iTunes era now, or what I will call the ‘ring-tone era’ of Hip Hop where it’s easy to get lost. With all the great things the internet has brought us, it has certain drawbacks. Everybody’s putting out singles, singles, singles trying to get it to catch, but it’s more about the song than it is the artist. So you have to allow your music and your personality and who you are in totality to be in alignment. If I get the song, but I don’t get you, it’s out of step. Before you get anything, you’ve got to get Mikkey Halsted. That’s why you’re just now seeing a bevy of material starting to come out. Now is the time, it wasn’t the time before. Now is the time and you see it slowly, slowly, slowly. I’m releasing material to guys like you, and other guys that I feel are really on the cutting edge. I like your blog, I read it and I like the mind state of it. Those are who I’m going to give the material to, and let them kind of pace it.. It’s dope because people get to see old stuff, new stuff, I’m going to be streaming a lot of material to you, because it’s that time now.
I haven’t really released a single yet, I’m working on a song with the Dream right now. I talked to Polow Tha Don yesterday and he’s got some crazy stuff. That’s just putting the finishing touches on Photo Album. The meat of the album is done, I just want to figure out whether I want to put 12 songs on it, 18 songs on it. It kind of seems like, as I go back and check all the classics, really none of them have had more than 14 songs on it. If I averaged them out, there would probably be 11 or 12 songs for every record I would consider classic material. I’m looking for a DJ right now, cause I want to put out a mixtape called “Classic Material” of all my favorite Golden Era joints, and just put them out with me over them. I got a whole bunch of fresh ideas and I write so fast, I can do stuff so fast that I can put together a project quickly. The Photo Album is really timing. I feel like I have a 5 mic album on my hands, and I did not want to do it the wrong way.
RubyHornet: Knowing what you know about timing is based on your past experience in the music industry, and what’s tripped out is that I read a lot of interviews with you and they all start with an opening paragraph that is kind of the same. They talk about you with Kanye West, then going to Cash Money and it not working out, and that’s a big shock. But if you really look and study the music industry, isn’t it more of a shock that you’re getting a second look right now? What have you learned to help you this time?
Mikkey Halsted: Every artist goes through that kind of growing pains period. People forget, they didn’t want to put Kanye out as a rapper. He had to really force their hand, so the world could have missed out on Kanye easily. Several record companies turned Jay-Z down, the world could have easily missed out on having Jay-Z. I don’t take it for granted…I’m coming into my prime as we speak. That’s the beauty of it. I could point fingers and put blame here and there, but when I look back on it, I really wasn’t ready. Now, I’m really ready. Did I really want that to be my first look? Now my first look is going to be powerful. And my run in this game is going to be powerful. I’m looking to be the best. I’m not looking to make a quick dollar. If I was, I’d be doing something different. I’m doing this for the love and because I have the chance to be one of the great ones. People haven’t even really heard the best yet, but, from being with the Cash Money’s and the Kanye’s, I know it’s strategy. No ID has taught me more than anybody that the timing has to be correct, and you have to have the proper strategy. You can’t just throw stuff up.
RubyHornet: I know that you have a Master’s degree and have been a teacher. I was also a teacher myself for about three years in Englewood.
Mikkey Halsted: I taught in Englewood too, 71st and Lowe.
RubyHornet: You’ve also said that the experience in the classroom stays with you and impacts you, how does that relate to your music?
Mikkey Halsted: My music is another medium of teaching, and reaching the youth. I went to college on a basketball scholarship. That was my first dream. I met Kanye when I was in my basketball phase. I had a chance to play overseas, and I passed it up because I met him and we started making some really good music. When I thought about what else I could do in life that could mean something, nothing moved me more or could make a bigger impact than being a teacher. I wanted to spread knowledge and open up their worlds. Their scope is so narrow, and me coming from that, and understanding how narrow that is- have buddies that never went downtown until they were 20 years old. It’s like, man, you have to become citizens of the whole world. I was always a history buff and love studying different religions and cultures, so teaching just came naturally to me. I had an extra year on my scholarship so I kept going to class and ended up with a master’s degree at a real young age and went into teach. I taught for a couple years and really loved it. That molded me too. When I got the first deal with Cash Money I retired, but I loved it.
That’s what my music is. Even my ghetto-est songs have some jewels in them. There’s still a teaching aspect to my music, and that’s what music used to me. You used to learn from Hip Hop. I learned from KRS, I learned from Big Daddy Kane, I learned from NWA, I learned from Scarface and The Geto Boys. These people taught me. Now it’s hard to get anything of substance out of the music. I’m putting food back in it. There are some artists, and big ups to the artists that have some nourishment in their lyrics, but they are few and far between. Back in the era when I was a kid there were so many, and they were the dopest, coolest rappers. Kiddie rap was cool, but nobody considered Kid N’ Play in the same real as Rakim. That was cool, and there was a place for that, but you knew there wasn’t any knowledge in that. They couldn’t be in the same category with Kane or KRS One. That was just totally different. That’s why I respect the Soulja Boys’ and all that for what it is, but there has to be some food. I’m here to help in the process. I don’t want to seem like I’m the only one, cause you’re never the only one. I’m proud to be from Chicago, some of the best to do it claim my city. I’m part of that tradition, and I’m keeping it alive and carrying that torch.
RubyHornet: Speaking about education, something I experienced as a student, and saw again when I had my own class, was that students that really tried hard and worked hard were the subject of ridicule simply for having good grades. I continually tried to show my students that being smart was in effect being cool, and drew on Hip Hop to illustrate that point, but many still struggled with it. Have you seen that yourself, and what role, if any, do you think Hip Hop plays in both perpetuating and solving the problem?
Mikkey Halsted: Let me give you some insight into the person I was. I’m from 116th and Morgan, an area called Rag Town. It’s extremely grimey, extremely ghetto, gangbanging etc…I was an honor student. I was reading on a 12th grade level when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. Some teachers begged my mom to put me in a gifted school, but they kept me in that school because I had brothers and sisters that were younger than me and we all had to stay together. I excelled at sports though, I was part of the in crowd, and used to fight a lot from being light skinned. In my community I was the white boy. I had to fight a lot, but it made me tougher and who I am. I tried to explain to my students that you have to be well-rounded in life. I’m a nerd in certain instances. My homies will be like, ‘why are you reading so many books?’ But that’s the s**t that interests me. A lot of Hip Hop kids, and a lot of rappers were the nerdy ones, and you really don’t know that. They don’t really show that side, but that’s the truth. We were the nerdy kids that tell the stories for everybody. I wasn’t really labeled a nerd, I was just super smart. It kind of came easy to me, others it didn’t come as easy to. It was just a gift, and I used it to be the one who is chosen to tell these people’s stories. In every neighborhood there is somebody that has to put it down on paper and tell that story, so that story can be out there.
I articulate our people’s pain in such a manner that people can feel it. The people where I’m from are proud of it. When I go back to 116th they love my music because they feel the honest place where it comes from. They know I wasn’t the one out there killing people or selling drugs. I hate drug dealers. I hate them with a passion. I lost my dad to that. I used to tell my students, I came up in a situation where most of my family was either selling drugs, or on drugs. I made it out. I was chosen by my family and even by my community. The older gang members used to say, ‘man, leave shorty alone.’ The older guys used to be like, ‘that Mikkey, he’s getting out of this hood. Don’t call him and get him involved in this stuff.’ I tried to impress upon the kids to be well rounded. You have to be street smart, but you got be book smart. You got to know what’s going on in the world.
My uncle was a big time cocaine dealer. At that time everything was great and the money was flowing. A lot of people got hooked on the stuff that he was selling and my family got hooked on the stuff that he was selling and he’s gone, my father’s gone. Part of the reason that I ran and snatched the Cash Money deal was because I was in an impoverished situation. I was in college and just got out of college but my family was starving. My dad used to come up and knock on my dorm room and be like, ‘I need $20.’ That was the kind of stress I was under. My mother was sleeping with her purse under her pillow and all kinds of s**t. That’s what I grew up in and decided that I wanted better for myself. I tell the shorties, ‘you have a choice to have something better.’ Rap is so influential and all of these people that are telling stories like Tupac, Jay-Z, and Nas, are some of the most intelligent people you will ever meet. Even Wayne is in college, and Kanye is a genius. Intelligence and real Hip Hop always coincided. It’s like we’ve got away from that and dumber is better, but I’ll be the one person in the crowd like, ‘f**k a drug dealer.’ I don’t have any love for any of that. That’s me. But I’m from the hood and I got drug dealer friends, and I understand. When people, or especially rappers glorify something that they really don’t know about, and they really never did, and they only tell one side of the story, that s**t really irritates me.
RubyHornet: In your song “Success” you say, “bitches become gangsters when the pro tools pops up, and all the success in the world ain’t waking my pop up.”
Mikkey Halsted: Later in that song I say, ’the fact that crack led to my father being deceased, that’s the reason I hate a drug dealer more than police.’
RubyHornet: A lot of Hip Hop is based on the total opposite, and not only that, ‘I paid for this record with drug money. That’s how I rented this studio.’
Mikkey Halsted: Yeah! Like that’s dope. Everyone’s like, ‘I’m a real gangster.’ That’s really not real. The people that really paved the way for us, the Black Panthers, the Malcolm X’s, they were against that. There’s got to come a time again when being a real man becomes cool again. Even the conscious rappers seem scared to say, ‘f**k a drug dealer.’ But me, I feel like, ‘Man, I’m from the same hood that you’re from. I’ve been through the same s**t, if not more, that you’ve been through. Yeah I’m educated, I got a Master’s degree, and what? I’ll still smack the s**t out of you if you get out of pocket with me. But, that s**t is killing our community. If you think that’s cool and are promoting that, then I am diametrically opposed to you. I will murder you musically, period!’
And, somebody’s that’s hood gotta be able to stand up and be like, ‘f**k that!’ When that kind of music comes out more, other people will come out and be like, ‘yeah, f** that! I agree.’ A lot of people agree with that, but they don’t say it because drug culture is supposed to be so cool. I’m like, ‘f**k that! If that’s all you can rap about to be cool, then that’s not s**t to me. If you think killing your people, selling poison, and contributing to the poverty and degradation of your community is what’s popping, then f**k you.’
RubyHornet: Is that what you are talking about on “The Exorcist”? I know on that song you talk about “selling our souls for Hip Hop” can you elaborate on that?
Mikkey Halsted: I also have another song, “Hustlers Need Luv Too” that’s on the fringes of the album. That song really talks about being a drug dealer and the real stress that accompanies that. I put myself in a drug dealer’s shoes. I got artists signed to me that are like best friends to me that have sold drugs, that have been stick up artists. This is what they really do, and I went back and grabbed them. I’m not judging the drug dealer that is caught up in a cycle that says, ‘man I really don’t know how to feed my family…My mother’s smoking this s**t, but hey, the guy says I can make some money. I’ve tricked off my education to the point where I don’t really have any other option to feed my family.’ I think it’s easy to get caught up in that cycle. I don’t judge my uncle. Who I judge are people that don’t really know the dynamics of it, that get up on the microphone and glorify it. I’m not hating the drug dealer, really I do to a certain extent, but I understand…I’m empathetic to their pain, because they have a lack of options, or they think they have a lack of options. There are options out there that we got to give them. We got to show them. If you haven’t seen it, how can you be it? These songs speak to the heart of what I’m talking about. It’s really a qualm with these rappers that want to be the persona of people they’ve never met. I wasn’t really talking about the rapper Noreaga, or the rapper Rick Ross in that song when I say ‘I’m more like Huey Newton than Rick Ross.’ I’m talking about Rick Ross, Freeway Rick from L.A. I was talking about the real Noreaga. I don’t judge those that do, but I wouldn’t name myself after that. What the f**k is that? But at the same time, that’s my problem with rappers that don’t show both sides. If you’re a rapper that shows both sides, I don’t have any problem with you. That’s part of life, and as rappers, we have to rap about what’s really out there. We have to be the reporters for our community. You don’t want to outcast people that sold drugs, or sell drugs, but none of the drug dealers I know ever wanted to sell drugs. People that really did it, that I’ve known, they know that s**t is really a risk. The money is the allure, and they get caught up in the money to a certain extent, and it’s hard to get out. You’ve created a lifestyle where you don’t have any other way to eat the next day.
RubyHornet: When you look at it, you were with Kanye West, and now Kanye West is at the top. And right now, neck and neck is Lil’ Wayne, another person you were with. Do you ever just trip off that?
Mikkey Halsted: I trip off that all the time. These are people I know in a close way. It’s crazy that these two people are at the pinnacle of Hip Hop. If you ever got the chance to talk to them and asked them, they know that I’m on that level. It reassures what I have felt from the beginning. I’m on that level talent wise. I never told anybody this in an interview, but I’m really still technically signed to Kanye’s Kon Man Productions. I don’t even know if that exists anymore…My manager was so scared when I was signing to Cash Money and didn’t want anything to go wrong. He said, ‘man, I’m going to go get a release from Kanye.’ He came back with a release from Kanye, but I ripped that s**t up. I never wanted to be released from him. I never really was released from him, I never did anything like that. He wanted me to sign some part of it, and I was like, ‘hell naw.’ It was trying to prohibit Kanye from getting paid off whatever I did when I blew up. It didn’t happen, but somebody gotta tell Kanye. Next time I talk to him I going to tell him, ‘I’m still signed to you.’
RubyHornet: Were there times when you thought, ‘I don’t need these pressures, I have a Master’s degree and I can go teach and have a happy life.’?
Mikkey Halsted: When I got the Cash Money deal I had just applied to law school. I was about to go to Northwestern Law. I did teaching. I felt like I did my service, it was stressing me the f**k out though. I was going to law school to be a defense attorney for people who are wrongly accused. They have a program there where they use DNA and all of that to get a lot of convicted people out, especially from the Black Panther cointelpro era. I thought that was what I was going to go do. Sometimes my girl will be like, ‘man, if you weren’t f**king with this rap s**t, we’d be living in a Hyde Park mansion already. Instead of this condo.’ And I’m like, ‘s**t you’re right.’ It’s kind of sidetracked me in a way, but I feel like at this time next year I’m going to be one of the top ten artists, period. I feel like when we talk next year I would have put out a classic album, and it will all pay off.
RubyHornet: You said that you hoped to have a deal by June. You also said you are going to be releasing a mixtape every 45 days. Can you give people an update on that?
Mikkey Halsted: The mixtape, is ready to go. I’m waiting on Papa Smurf, a DJ out of Miami that’s doing it just to put his proper touches on it. As soon as he puts his touches on it, the first one is coming up. Then I got albums already cocked and loaded ready to come in 45 day intervals. I’ve been talking to more labels, and I kind of got the internet going nuts right now. Hopefully I’ll know who I’m going to be with by the end of June. I’m about to shoot a video for Liquor Store this month, as well as song produced by No ID called “Karma.” I’m shooting those with the Visionaries. I just want to leverage myself correctly, because really, I could have taken a deal last month, the month before that. I’m just leveraging myself to get the kind of deal I really want. When that comes, I’m going to sign it. Being through three deals already, I know what it looks like.
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